Culture Buff

William Dobell “Woman in a Salon (Helena Rubinstein)” 1960

23 November 2019

9:00 AM

23 November 2019

9:00 AM

She was a girl from Coleraine who became the world’s first self made multi-millionairess. Born in Krakôw, Poland in1872, she emigrated to Australia in 1896 to escape an arranged marriage, living in Coleraine with an uncle. Entrepreneurial from the outset, she imported face cream made in Poland, selling it to local ladies who admired her complexion. The 75 million sheep in the surrounding area were a plentiful source of lanolin, the base of a cream she started making herself. By 1902, she had established an elegant salon in Melbourne selling her Crème Valaze.

In 1908 she left for London with a fortune of 100,000 pounds to invest; Paris and New York soon became part of a world-wide enterprise. In what is a textbook case, she sold the American business in 1928 to Lehman Brothers for over $7 million buying it back after the crash for less than $1m, eventually multiplying its value many times over. Her wealth permitted her to become a substantial philanthropist in the US, Israel and, rather touchingly here, with the Helena Rubinstein Travelling Art Scholarship.

Her portrait had been painted numerous times when, in 1957 on her last visit to Australia, she sat for William Dobell. Sotheby’s is auctioning Dobell’s Woman in a Salon (Helena Rubinstein) 1960. Dobell painted her more than four times, capturing her different moods. Here she is glamorous but thoughtful. Works by Dobell are enjoying a considerable market re-evaluation. Madame Rubinstein would be pleased.

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